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EA: The Human Story [Nov. 10th, 2004|12:01 am]
ea_spouse
My significant other works for Electronic Arts, and I'm what you might call a disgruntled spouse.

EA's bright and shiny new corporate trademark is "Challenge Everything." Where this applies is not exactly clear. Churning out one licensed football game after another doesn't sound like challenging much of anything to me; it sounds like a money farm. To any EA executive that happens to read this, I have a good challenge for you: how about safe and sane labor practices for the people on whose backs you walk for your millions?

I am retaining some anonymity here because I have no illusions about what the consequences would be for my family if I was explicit. However, I also feel no impetus to shy away from sharing our story, because I know that it is too common to stick out among those of the thousands of engineers, artists, and designers that EA employs.

Our adventures with Electronic Arts began less than a year ago. The small game studio that my partner worked for collapsed as a result of foul play on the part of a big publisher -- another common story. Electronic Arts offered a job, the salary was right and the benefits were good, so my SO took it. I remember that they asked him in one of the interviews: "how do you feel about working long hours?" It's just a part of the game industry -- few studios can avoid a crunch as deadlines loom, so we thought nothing of it. When asked for specifics about what "working long hours" meant, the interviewers coughed and glossed on to the next question; now we know why.

Within weeks production had accelerated into a 'mild' crunch: eight hours six days a week. Not bad. Months remained until any real crunch would start, and the team was told that this "pre-crunch" was to prevent a big crunch toward the end; at this point any other need for a crunch seemed unlikely, as the project was dead on schedule. I don't know how many of the developers bought EA's explanation for the extended hours; we were new and naive so we did. The producers even set a deadline; they gave a specific date for the end of the crunch, which was still months away from the title's shipping date, so it seemed safe. That date came and went. And went, and went. When the next news came it was not about a reprieve; it was another acceleration: twelve hours six days a week, 9am to 10pm.

Weeks passed. Again the producers had given a termination date on this crunch that again they failed. Throughout this period the project remained on schedule. The long hours started to take its toll on the team; people grew irritable and some started to get ill. People dropped out in droves for a couple of days at a time, but then the team seemed to reach equilibrium again and they plowed ahead. The managers stopped even talking about a day when the hours would go back to normal.

Now, it seems, is the "real" crunch, the one that the producers of this title so wisely prepared their team for by running them into the ground ahead of time. The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm -- seven days a week -- with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week. Complaints that these once more extended hours combined with the team's existing fatigue would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.

The stress is taking its toll. After a certain number of hours spent working the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend -- bad things happen to one's physical, emotional, and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.

And the kicker: for the honor of this treatment EA salaried employees receive a) no overtime; b) no compensation time! ('comp' time is the equalization of time off for overtime -- any hours spent during a crunch accrue into days off after the product has shipped); c) no additional sick or vacation leave. The time just goes away. Additionally, EA recently announced that, although in the past they have offered essentially a type of comp time in the form of a few weeks off at the end of a project, they no longer wish to do this, and employees shouldn't expect it. Further, since the production of various games is scattered, there was a concern on the part of the employees that developers would leave one crunch only to join another. EA's response was that they would attempt to minimize this, but would make no guarantees. This is unthinkable; they are pushing the team to individual physical health limits, and literally giving them nothing for it. Comp time is a staple in this industry, but EA as a corporation wishes to "minimize" this reprieve. One would think that the proper way to minimize comp time is to avoid crunch, but this brutal crunch has been on for months, and nary a whisper about any compensation leave, nor indeed of any end of this treatment.

This crunch also differs from crunch time in a smaller studio in that it was not an emergency effort to save a project from failure. Every step of the way, the project remained on schedule. Crunching neither accelerated this nor slowed it down; its effect on the actual product was not measurable. The extended hours were deliberate and planned; the management knew what they were doing as they did it. The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out.

No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do. No one on that team is interested in producing an inferior product. My heart bleeds for this team precisely BECAUSE they are brilliant, talented individuals out to create something great. They are and were more than willing to work hard for the success of the title. But that good will has only been met with abuse. Amazingly, Electronic Arts was listed #91 on Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2003.

EA's attitude toward this -- which is actually a part of company policy, it now appears -- has been (in an anonymous quotation that I've heard repeated by multiple managers), "If they don't like it, they can work someplace else." Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA's Human Resources policy. The concept of ethics or compassion or even intelligence with regard to getting the most out of one's workforce never enters the equation: if they don't want to sacrifice their lives and their health and their talent so that a multibillion dollar corporation can continue its Godzilla-stomp through the game industry, they can work someplace else.

But can they?

The EA Mambo, paired with other giants such as Vivendi, Sony, and Microsoft, is rapidly either crushing or absorbing the vast majority of the business in game development. A few standalone studios that made their fortunes in previous eras -- Blizzard, Bioware, and Id come to mind -- manage to still survive, but 2004 saw the collapse of dozens of small game studios, no longer able to acquire contracts in the face of rapid and massive consolidation of game publishing companies. This is an epidemic hardly unfamiliar to anyone working in the industry. Though, of course, it is always the option of talent to go outside the industry, perhaps venturing into the booming commercial software development arena. (Read my tired attempt at sarcasm.)

To put some of this in perspective, I myself consider some figures. If EA truly believes that it needs to push its employees this hard -- I actually believe that they don't, and that it is a skewed operations perspective alone that results in the severity of their crunching, coupled with a certain expected amount of the inefficiency involved in running an enterprise as large as theirs -- the solution therefore should be to hire more engineers, or artists, or designers, as the case may be. Never should it be an option to punish one's workforce with ninety hour weeks; in any other industry the company in question would find itself sued out of business so fast its stock wouldn't even have time to tank. In its first weekend, Madden 2005 grossed $65 million. EA's annual revenue is approximately $2.5 billion. This company is not strapped for cash; their labor practices are inexcusable.

The interesting thing about this is an assumption that most of the employees seem to be operating under. Whenever the subject of hours come up, inevitably, it seems, someone mentions 'exemption'. They refer to a California law that supposedly exempts businesses from having to pay overtime to certain 'specialty' employees, including software programmers. This is Senate Bill 88. However, Senate Bill 88 specifically does not apply to the entertainment industry -- television, motion picture, and theater industries are specifically mentioned. Further, even in software, there is a pay minimum on the exemption: those exempt must be paid at least $90,000 annually. I can assure you that the majority of EA employees are in fact not in this pay bracket; ergo, these practices are not only unethical, they are illegal.

I look at our situation and I ask 'us': why do you stay? And the answer is that in all likelihood we won't; and in all likelihood if we had known that this would be the result of working for EA, we would have stayed far away in the first place. But all along the way there were deceptions, there were promises, there were assurances -- there was a big fancy office building with an expensive fish tank -- all of which in the end look like an elaborate scheme to keep a crop of employees on the project just long enough to get it shipped. And then if they need to, they hire in a new batch, fresh and ready to hear more promises that will not be kept; EA's turnover rate in engineering is approximately 50%. This is how EA works. So now we know, now we can move on, right? That seems to be what happens to everyone else. But it's not enough. Because in the end, regardless of what happens with our particular situation, this kind of "business" isn't right, and people need to know about it, which is why I write this today.

If I could get EA CEO Larry Probst on the phone, there are a few things I would ask him. "What's your salary?" would be merely a point of curiosity. The main thing I want to know is, Larry: you do realize what you're doing to your people, right? And you do realize that they ARE people, with physical limits, emotional lives, and families, right? Voices and talents and senses of humor and all that? That when you keep our husbands and wives and children in the office for ninety hours a week, sending them home exhausted and numb and frustrated with their lives, it's not just them you're hurting, but everyone around them, everyone who loves them? When you make your profit calculations and your cost analyses, you know that a great measure of that cost is being paid in raw human dignity, right?

Right?


===

This article is offered under the Creative Commons deed. Please feel free to redistribute/link.
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Comments:
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-01 08:37 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

"Need to stop crying and live in the real world"? Take some of your own advice, pal. Employers who destroy individuals and families so that their stock can go up a quarter of a point have no place in this world. None whatsoever. And when a company gets as big and monolithic as Electronic Arts has become, it's a BAD THING.

I don't know what part of "happy employees are productive employees" it is that you don't understand. The longer you can keep your team onboard, the more experienced they get. The more experienced, the more focused they are, the better your product. So many studies suggest that EA could be doing -more- with -less-. Who should we believe -- the splendid results from developers who treat workers well (i.e. Bioware) or someone like you?

And with regard to your own last sentence: "I could on and on". Forget something there? Little glitch creep in unnoticed? Funny how reading your writing feels like playing any given EA release.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-17 02:40 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

Here's the deal. I'll take your position. I served in the military, and I know about long hours. And I'll do better work than you do. I won't complain. I'll push myself as hard as humanly possible until I break, because I'm very aware of my breaking point. Once I've reached that point, I'll move on to another position or company.

I live to take jobs from people like your spouse. I love to show I can perform above the low standards of the common worker. You set the bar, and I clear it.

Please, please keep on whining. It keeps me gainfully employed.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-17 04:22 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

I know about long hours. And I'll do better work than you do. I won't complain. I'll push myself as hard as humanly possible until I break, because I'm very aware of my breaking point. Shouldn't you have ended you rant with comrade? Your attitude toward this would never work in the long run. If you were truly on active duty in any branch of the service you would know that it doesn't benefit anyone to take someone to their breaking point. Effective leadership prevents that because it promotes unreadiness. What you seem to be describing is a virus. not an effective worker.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-27 11:32 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

This is my particular favorite response. I don't work in the games industry. Instead, I work for a large ($7B) defense contractor as a full-time proposal specialist/writer. If you know that industry, you know that the hours in that line of work rival software development as proposals are the primary means for developing business and revenue. As an extra bonus, a good 70% of the employees in the company are former military, so I see guys like this twit day in and day out--all full of piss-and-vinegar Oooo-rah--right up until it's time to actually produce.

The military doesn't train the vast majority of its personnel to creatively solve problems; they teach them to follow directions without comment or tiring. I need people like that to paint my house and move my furniture, not develop my technical/programmatic solutions.

But, please, keep boasting. I love firing folks like you from my projects.

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From: (Anonymous)
2005-04-26 04:51 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

After reading the "I served in the military" response, I have to wonder if this person actually exists.

Simply put, his/her response seems to embody the very fear that keeps people working under these insane conditions. Having said that, anyone who would antagonize a very real and very serious situation must either be 1.) a fictional character, 2.) an executive of the company in question, 3.) totally out of touch with the reality of their own situation.

I come from a background of audio engineering which is the very definition of worker exploitation (long-hours for unpaid contract work deemed as "internships", oversaturated job market). The saddest part about this post is that it is true. When you quit, someone else takes your place and doesn't look back. The companies in question face no real consequences in your departure so why should they care about you? It’s been going on for decades; the only assets to the company are the shareholders and its executive officers. The dream of corporate America replacing their subordinate’s power with the illusion of empowerment is all too real in today’s society.

The "If you don't like it, go somewhere else" attitude is a method of corporate policy that I've noticed has taken form in many different industries. It is being passed around like some sort of winning playbook of corporate guidelines and procedure. Why not? It's working, isn't it? It will keep on working, even after the company has outsourced all its labor jobs to other countries. Why should a company put up with the demands of the United States work force when they can train, employ and command a much cheaper/more receptive work force overseas?

What "I served in the military" doesn't seem to understand is that perpetuating that attitude of "if you won't do it, I will" puts himself at risk of losing their job in the future as well. Corporate America is slowly outsourcing all production. Where that leaves the skilled American workforce is an answer only the future holds. I expect another boom of small, grassroots industry followed briefly by the collapse of many large corporate entities. It doesn’t really matter because with people like “I served in the military” around, there will never be a definitive end to worker exploitation.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-05-03 11:29 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

The military sucessfully brainwashed you. Get a life.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-03 05:59 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

I served in the military as well and am a graduate of one of the US military service academies. I also know about long hours. I have been in combat. So, what does that prove?

Apparently, you missed one of the overriding lessons of military leadership: a leader takes care of his/her people. A leader only eats after all of his/her people have received their food. A leader only gets to sleep after all of his/her people have been bedded down for the night. A leader is an operator in a HUMAN environment amd must deal with all of the consequent nuances and subjectiveness of that fact. A leader cannot lean on his/her people over any extended period of time as if they were machinery or robots. All of the best military leaders have understood this. Leadership often requires compassion and an acknowledgement of people's human needs.

Yes, SOMETIMES long hours and "crunches" are absolutely necessary; sometimes the situation demands it. However, for a leader, the situation ALWAYS requires an awareness in your mind that your people are PEOPLE.

It sounds like what EA is really suffering from is a dearth of effective leadership.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-09-28 06:21 pm (UTC)

Im sure you were a good in the military,

Im x pararescue I know long hours. But there's a diffrence, you and me worked hours to protect and honor our country, these are people with families trying to make a living. You can't compare the two. We fought for freedom of the people and EA works to skrew them.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-12-10 03:46 am (UTC)

Re: Im sure you were a good in the military,

Im x pararescue I know long hours. But there's a diffrence, you and me worked hours to protect and honor our country, these are people with families trying to make a living. You can't compare the two. We fought for freedom of the people and EA works to skrew them.

I, too, am in the military and don't see much of a difference. While yes, we are out to protect and serve our country, we are also trying to make a living. Whether it is working 14 hours a day for 7 days a week in an office or being deployed oversears away from family and working 16 hours a day (my job forces me to have 8 hours of sleep because of great risks involved) for 7 days a week with minimum food and very little contact with the outside world. While also making much less money (I have even read some insane articles saying the military is overpaid (I can make $10,000-$30,000 more for same job outside the military, some even as a civil service for DoD), there is hardly any complaints on how brutal of a schedule we're in. No mater what job (military excluded, unless you like prison), you have the option to leave at any time. Everyone volunteered to join the company they worked for. It's all about what yu're willing to sacrifice for what you'd like to make. If you want to be paid well and financially support your family, some stressful and irregular work hours (some doctors, developers, architects, etc) you may have to spend more time at work. If you just want to work the standard 8 hour days, jobs like an office secretary, store manager, etc) may be the job for you.
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From: rlelln
2007-02-26 09:22 pm (UTC)

Re: Im sure you were a good in the military,

Why don't you try solving complex programming tasks within short time period, before moving on to the next scheduled programming task. Most tasks in the military, meaning no disrespect, are mindless.
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[User Picture]From: beartalon
2005-10-06 07:22 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

Let's assume you AREN'T the best and someone comes along and displaces you. How would you explain that? Everyone is expendable, and no-one is immune to life.

If you're the kind of person who doesn't think of anything but work and succeeding at it, you're being well-used by corporate America.

How's your significant other?
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-05-08 03:55 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

You served the country well. It cost you only 3/4 of the brain..
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-06-12 02:27 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

I'm an IT consultant and hobbyist games developer and I will never take a job with a company like EA. I thought the whole point of working in games development was about living your dream, working a fun job which is creatively inspiring. There's a difference between getting the job done and creating a work of art, a work of art needs inspiration and passion, you can't compare it to a .mil endurance contest.
Personally, I'll stick with the consulting because I can earn better money working 5 days a week 9-5, I choose my own holliday time. It's boring and I'm not living my dream, but I don't have to compete withe the "happy to be here" crowd who are willing to work 18 hour days for next to nothing.
I do better work than you, for more money, for myself, and I'll do it for longer because I'll never burn out. And I have a life.. but I spose if you've never had it you'll never miss it. Now get back to work b*tch!
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-03-14 09:45 pm (UTC)
You sound ignorant which reflects your lack of education. If all you can do is jump through hoops and follow orders like a sheep then you won't be taking anyone's job in this industry. It requires more than an arrogant followers mindset to be in a creative field. I come from a military family and have practiced martial arts all my life which teaches the same discipline and trains us to focus under extreme pressure. You say once you hit your breaking point, you'll move on to another position or company? It sounds like you never served in a war and weren't in the military for very long because the military teaches you to work through your breaking point and focus on completing your goals no matter what. Teaching not to ever give up and "break and change position or company" Or act like a child with an 'I'm better than you are attitude'.

My grandfather was at the storming of Normandy and survived. He never acted like he thought he was better than everyone because he was in the military. Just like in martial arts, real masters don't have to brag about themselves or their abilities. You obviously have no real substance as a person and are compensating for your 'insecurities' as a man. Apparently you never learned that respect and honor are more than just words in an army commercial. A person with real honor never boasts about themselves or talks down to anyone. You're one of those losers who only joined the military because you wanted the instant respect you think comes with it. The type of person who has to rely on telling people you're in the military to make you feel special because you don't have anything else to offer the world. People like these are losers, and only join up so they can pretend they aren't. Putting on a uniform won't wash away your failings as a human being. Keep thinking you're better than everyone else, but what have you achieved outside of the military? With your own with your own mind and will and no one ordering you around like a dog?
-You give the military a bad name pal.
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From: premedios
2006-05-02 12:00 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

Ok. I'm not a professional game developer, per se, but a hobbyist game developer. I'm also an avid computer game fan. From what I read from story and responses, there are mixed feelings about the consequences of "crunch time"...

well...I will say the following and everyone better listen to this damn it...

There is one consequence and that is the consumer. I am not going to pay 50 dollars for a bland game. Up until 3 years ago I used to play alot of EA games. Then I began noticing that they were bland and boring. That's when I started playing games like Neverwinter nights from Bioware and Warcraft from Blizzard. Maybe Bioware and Blizzard also have people "crunching" but maybe not as much as EA does!!!!!! Now I know why the games from EA are not that good anymore.......keep up the good work, EA management, because if this goes on and there are more consumers like me who scrutinize games by playability, EA won't sell anything.
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